March 29, 2019 GMT

BOISE — The Idaho House passed two bills Friday to raise the requirements to get an initiative on the ballot.

The House first voted 40-30 to pass Senate Bill 1159, which has already passed the Senate, which would increase the threshold from signatures of 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of 35 legislative districts to 10 percent in 32 of 35 districts and cut the amount of time to gather signatures from 18 months to six. The House then voted 47-22 to pass House Bill 296, which is largely the same but would set the threshold at signatures of 10 percent of registered voters in two-thirds of the state’s districts and give nine months to gather signatures. Sixteen Republicans joined all 14 Democrats to vote against 1159, although some of them flipped back to support 296.

The number of signatures required under either version would increase from about 55,000 now to almost 92,000, since you would need the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters statewide rather than 6 percent as it is now. The bills also would require initiatives to include a fiscal impact statement and a proposed funding source if the initiative would cost anything.

The proposal comes on the heels of last year’s successful initiative to expand Medicaid over the objections of many Republican lawmakers. Opponents of the measure have raised legal concerns, saying it could violate the Idaho Constitution both due to the unequal sizes of legislative districts and because, by setting the thresholds so high, it could effectively make inaccessible the constitutional power to bring an initiative Idahoans have had since 1912.

“Participation in our government and the right to vote does not depend on political party or an issue,” said Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise. “It is based on our Idaho Constitution and it is based on our Idaho history.”

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, noted that many lobbyists support the bill. The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Food Producers of Idaho and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry all support the bill.

“It’s a lot easier for a lobby group to control 70 in this body than it is to control the masses of the people,” she said.

Scott focused much of her debate on the Legislature’s committee system, which gives chairmen basically unlimited power to block a bill. The complaint that the committee system blocks some popular ideas from being discussed has been brought up frequently in recent years, by Scott and by numerous other lawmakers, generally Democrats and more conservative Republicans like her.

“We don’t operate like a republic,” Scott said. “We operate like little monarchies or oligarchies or democracies within our republic. ... Do we want more control for the people or do we want more control for the Legislature? And I think the question we have to be asking ourselves is what is this disconnect between the people and our body?”

The bill’s supporters say it wouldn’t discourage voter participation but would ensure that anything that gets on the ballot has a certain degree of support statewide.

“I want to reiterate this is not an action to prevent voters,” said sponsor Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay. “This is an action to encourage voters, to ensure the system of elected representation is working correctly.”

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said it would ensure rural voices are heard.

“All the bill is intended to do is make sure there is broad support across the state of Idaho for the initiative process,” Crane said. “That’s what we’re intending to do.”

What happens next is up to the Senate, which will receive House Bill 296 on Monday. The bill, which Republican House leadership said in a news release was an attempt to address some of the concerns about the original bill, was introduced at a last-minute House Ways and Means Committee meeting on Thursday and sent directly to the House floor without any public hearings.